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  • John Thavis

And now, the aftershocks…

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

The synod’s ground-breaking relatio yesterday, which displayed a new pastoral tone and remarkable openness to cohabitating, divorced and gay couples, was met by praise in many quarters but also by a series of objections and criticisms, both inside and outside the synod hall.

(UPDATE BELOW: Cardinal Napier says relatio needs to be reorganized, put into context.)

Today’s synod bulletin summarizes the reaction among synod participants during a two-hour debate yesterday. On one hand, it said, there was acclaim for the way the document managed to accurately reflect the speeches at the assembly and its general theme of “welcoming” as a key to evangelization. The synod should have the “watchful gaze of the pastor who devotes his life for his sheep, without a priori judgment,” was how the Vatican summarized the favorable reviews.

As for the objections, they were many – although it is hard to say how much support each criticism has among the nearly 200 bishops present. Here is a sample of the criticisms, according to the Vatican summary:

— The document should talk more about families that faithfully follow church teachings, thanking them for their witness to the Gospel, instead of focusing so much on “imperfect family situations.” The synod should offer a clear message that “indissoluble, happy marriage, faithful forever, is beautiful, possible and present in society,” the summary said. Some urged greater treatment of the missionary role of the family.

— The relatio’s section on homosexuality should make clear that “welcoming” gay people should be done with a certain prudence, “so as not to leave the impression that the church has a positive evaluation of this orientation,” the Vatican summary said. Similar objections were raised to the relatio’s treatment of cohabitating couples.

— Some bishops objected that the document’s words on the principle of “graduality” needs clarification and a deeper reflection, because it could generate confusion.

— It was said that the concept of sin needs better mention in the relatio, as well as some reference to Jesus’ “prophetic tone,” in order to avoid giving the impression that the church is conforming to the mentality of the modern world.

— Doubts were raised about how a streamlining of annulment procedures would work, with some pointing out the risk of overloading local bishops with work if a less cumbersome procedure relies on a bishop’s direct involvement.

— Greater attention was requested for polygamy, which only received a passing mention in the text. The same was said of pornography, with some bishops saying online porn represents a real risk for modern families.

— Some bishops said the section on openness to life should be more ample and more hard-hitting on the issues of abortion and surrogate motherhood.

— The synod heard a call for greater attention to the theme of women, including the protection of women and women’s role in transmitting life and the faith.

— One suggestion was that the synod make explicit mention of the role of grandparents and elders as a resource in the modern family.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, told Vatican Radio that the synod mid-term relatio was unacceptable to many bishops, and should focus more on “good, normal, ordinary” families.

U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Vatican’s highest tribunal, said the relatio contained confusing and erroneous language, and should be “set aside completely” in favor of a new document that reflects church teaching.

Whether these objections are reflected in the synod’s final document, which goes directly to the pope, remains to be seen. The synod’s discussion groups are meeting this week, and among their tasks is to propose revisions to the text.

These revisions will be presented to the group writing the synod’s final relatio, but it is not yet clear whether they will be voting on each proposal.

UPDATE: At today’s briefing for reporters, the Vatican spokesman and two synod participants seemed to be doing everything possible to downplay expectations raised by the relatio, emphasizing that it remains a “work in progress.”

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said the relatio did not accurately reflect all of the synod debate, and that the text did not express some things in a “helpful” way, although he was not specific about which points he thought may have been mistaken or distorted.

It’s difficult to say what Napier meant, exactly. At one point he seemed to come very close to disowning the text, and at another he said the relatio basically represented what was said in the synod hall.

Napier said the discussion in his group, which he moderates, showed support for “reorganizing the material in a way that’s going to be much more positive” so that when next year’s synodal assembly comes around “we’ll be building on positives and not simply on negatives.”

Napier said the fact that the midterm relatio was released (as it always is at synods) and became a big media story (inaccurate stories, in his view) has left many synod fathers upset, because it now limits their ability to make modifications. “We are now working from a position that is virtually irredeemable. The message has gone out, ‘This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying.’ And it’s not what we’re saying at all,” Napier said. Again, he was not specific.

Napier said of the relatio itself: “I don’t think anyone is saying there is a gross misrepresentation of the church’s teachings in the document. The media may have gone further than the document.”

Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, also a group moderator, said the relatio was considered “substantially positive” in its pastoral approach, but needing improvement in “contextualizing” some of its statements, particularly on doctrinal matters. For example, he said, the relatio mentioned the words of Christ regarding marriage, but did not develop it.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said that most of the comments by synod participants expressed appreciation for the relatio, and then made suggestions for improvement.

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